Yesterday, Max Fisher, foreign affairs blogger at the Washington Post, put together a helpful primer, “9 Questions about Mali You Were Too Embarrassed to Ask.” It is funny, accessibly written, and a good start for those unfamiliar with the conflict. But as is the case in most simplified (but not simple) explanations of complex conflicts, some issues that have been explored in depth elsewhere get short shrift. For example, he writes,
So is this like Iraq, where the post-colonial borders forced different groups of people, who historically had not gotten along, to co-exist? Sort of, yeah. Look at the map at the top of this page. You see that little blue line? That’s the Niger River, and it’s really important. The southwest part of the country is more populous and developed. The capital city, Bamako, is there. Most of the residents in the southwest and along the Niger River are black-skinned, though not all are of the same ethnicity. The northern half of the country has historically been more diverse. The vast Saharan expanse is mainly populated by ethnic Tuaregs, nomadic peoples who consider themselves white-skinned and who also live in the central region.
I followed the link regarding the racial politics of the conflict, which in many ways, rehearses the familiar tropes of black-white/ethnic discord as the root of conflict. This is not to say that ethnicity doesn’t figure into conflict. But, as one anthropologist of the region, Naffet Keita, notes in an article by Hannah Armstrong,
‘We should not understand this as a product of essentially ethnic factors,’ says anthropologist Dr. Naffet Keita, the first southern Malian to defend a thesis on the Tuaregs. The Ifoghas, he outlines, were a subjugated Tuareg tribe first empowered by the French, which allied with them against the more warlike, anti-colonial Tuareg of Menaka. The Ifoghass have headed Tuareg rebellions since Malian Independence, with the state indirectly empowering them during peace accords by buying their submission with key posts in Bamako and the North. Having gained choice appointments over the course of the rebellions, Keita says, ‘the Ifoghas have started to assert their supremacy over other Tuareg communities.’ Many Tuareg factions do not support the current rebellion, which has touched off a refugee crisis of epic proportions (320,000 displaced, according to UN figures). Ifoghas leaders head up the rebels as well as the Salafist group that is violently imposing Sharia law in the occupied North, which they claim to have liberated.